I sent an e-mail to Mike Licona last night to see if he had any upcoming debates. Mike debates in favor of the view that we can know historically, on the evidence, that God raised Jesus from the dead. Mike replied back to let me know that he will be debating Bart Ehrman, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, again at Southern Evangelical Seminary in NC, on April 2, 2009. The topic of their debate will be “Can Historians Prove Jesus Rose From The Dead?”
In Mike’s first debate with Ehrman, (audio, video), Licona used the minimal facts approach pioneered by Gary Habermas, which is similar to Bill Craig’s approach. Mike’s minimal facts approach does not require that the Bible be inspired, inerrant, or generally reliable. Mike uses only a fraction of the New Testament, the minimal facts, which are facts that are accepted nearly unanimously by scholars across the ideological spectrum, including atheists. He leans especially hard on 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which contains the basics of the resurrection narrative and is dated to 1-5 years after the cross.
The minimal facts are accepted because they pass a variety of tests that the other passages do not pass. To be considered a minimal fact, the passage must be cited in one early source, such as Paul’s letters or Mark, and it must be in other independent sources. It also helps if the passage is attested to by enemies, or is dissimilar from Jesus’ Jewish milieu, or if it embarrasses the people who are recording and preserving the text. So, a fact like the guard at the tomb, which is only recorded in one source, (Matthew), is not a minimal fact.
Licona’s 4 facts last time were: 1) Jesus was crucified, 2) Jesus’ followers experienced visions of Jesus after his death, 3) Jesus’ enemy, Paul, had an experience that transformed into a powerful advocate for Christianity, and 4) Jesus’ brother, James, also had a post-mortem experience of Jesus, and changed from being skeptical of Jesus during his lifetime to being a leader in the early church. Both Paul and James were eventually martyred for their new faith in Jesus. This approach to the resurrection is a lot more acceptable to skeptics. There is no blind faith – just pure historical analysis.
Interestingly, Licona does not argue for the empty tomb, as Craig does. In the recent debate between J.D. Crossan and N.T. Wright, I was surprised to hear that Crossan was willing to grant the empty tomb, for the sake of argument, to Wright. Crossan is a radical liberal, so if he grants the empty tomb, then you and I can use it. I think that the fact that the earliest witnesses to the empty tomb were women, whose testimony was not regarded as reliable at that time, enhances the reliability of the empty tomb narrative.
Ehrman argues that the New Testament is not a reliable source for history, because there are manuscripts that differ from other manuscripts. He concludes that the resurrection cannot be proved historically. He also makes a point about how miracles are the “least probable” explanation, (which William Lane Craig demolishes in their debate, see transcript here). These manuscript differences are called variants, and there are quite a high number of them, because there are quite a high number of manuscripts. The number of variants sounds alarming, until you realize that no New Testament doctrine is affected by the large number of invariants.
In Ehrman’s debate with Peter Williams on the UK-based Unbelievable radio show, and in Ehrman’s debate with Dan Wallace, Ehrman lists the 4 worst problems caused by the invariants:
- the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) is a late addition not present in the earliest manuscripts
- the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) is a late addition not present in the earliest manuscripts
- Jesus was angry and not compassionate when he healed the leper (Mark 1:41)
- that Jesus died apart from God, and not by the grace of God (Hebrews 2:9)
Now I have to tell you, these disputes are irrelevant to standard Christian doctrine. Also, I personally prefer the woman at the well story being left out, and I prefer angry Jesus in 3). Why? Because I am snarky. The only variant that bugs me is the ending in Mark, because I liked the long ending. But none of these “worst cases” affects anything that Mike Licona might say on behalf of the resurrection, which is what the debate is supposed to be about, right?
For further study of Licona and Ehrman, I would recommend the book “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus”, by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona on the resurrection, which is the best introductory book you can get on how to argue the minimal facts case. If you like Lee Strobel’s interviewing style, then you can’t go wrong with this book, “The Case for the Real Jesus”. If you prefer books featuring debates between opposing scholars, check out William Lane Craig against Gerd Ludemann here, (audio of their re-match is here), William Lane Craig against John Dominic Crossan here, (audio of the debate is here), or N. T. Wright against John Dominic Crossan here, (audio of the debate only is here).
If you can get the audio for the N.T. Wright and J.D. Crossan debate, that’s quite useful because of the strong respondents, (Doug Geivett, Craig Evans and Charles Quarles). The audio from the Ben Wallace vs. Bart Ehrman debate is also worth getting. These are both available to buy here.